Rudolf Serkin (1903 – 1991) was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Serkin was a child prodigy who made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic when he was 12. World War II caused him to emigrate to the United States where he lived for the rest of his life. In addition to his concertizing he was a great teacher. He taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for decades. With his father-in-law, violinist Adolf Busch, he founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival. But it was as an interpreter of Beethoven that he made his biggest and most lasting impact.
Serkin’s playing of Beethoven seems to me to be the way composer would have played his own music. His technique was prodigious. There’s a crystalline clarity to his articulation. In Beethoven’s moments of quiet and repose Serkin plays the notes with straight forward simplicity. He lets the music speak for itself. When Beethoven explodes, seemingly ready to take on the entire cosmos, Serkin attacks the piano with all the force that Beethoven demands. He would pound the keys and the pedal with almost equal intensity.
The current disc contains four sonatas. In addition to the three listed on the album’s cover (all recorded in 1962) there is a 1977 recording of Les Adieux (Op 81a) made in performance at Carnegie Hall. At 74 Serkin still possessed the unique skills which made him the foremost performer of his time of Beethoven’s keyboard works. The sharpness, precision, and forceful intensity that he brings to the finale of the work is characteristic of his playing of the great master’s works.
The last movement of the Appassionata Sonata (Op 57) is a volcanic eruption. Its technical challenges are probably only equaled by the Hammerklavier Sonata (Op 106). Serkin swallows it whole. All the otherworldly emotion that’s in the last movement is hurled at the listener like a Jovian thunderbolt. Here’s the work’s final few minutes. (Serkin Appassionata finale) The movement is marked allegro ma non troppo, but nobody plays it that way, especially Serkin. Someone said he had fingers of steel. In this reading they seem made of titanium.